Vocal lessons and a good deal of observation come first, says Kalpagam Swaminathan.

"I have come to ask questions to gain knowledge; that way I'm a learner," began Suguna Varadachari, in all humility. The veteran vocalist engaged herself in a dialogue with veena expert Kalpagam Swaminathan for Sampradaya. The first question was the most fundamental one - What is sampradaya? The answer was equally fundamental and went thus - It is the function of maintaining certain kritis (their well-established patantharas), certain values in music that have stood the test of time and certain procedures formed out of practice, unchanged. Why then have changes been the order of the day and even disciples who have learnt from the same guru render it differently. The answer was: "They may have visited many gurus or alternatively mght be singing according to their abilities and potentialities (gnanam)."

Words of wisdom

The attention then shifted to the veena. Is there some kind of rigorous teaching model to follow? When should gamakam be introduced to the students? The expert cautioned: "For a few months initially, the novice should never be allowed to come near this instrument. Even the seemingly innocuous meetu that you hear has to be done artfully and the plucking of the thala strings simultaneously requires a good deal of observation before you reach the hands-on mode. It should be vocal music perforce, to begin with. Then they should be taught to play the varisaigal - sarali varisai, janta varisai and all such - in three speeds with the rhythm strings also operating at the respective speeds. They should be taught the active usage of two fingers on the frets, and should be made to comprehend the power (azuththam) in the meetu and its different orientations. All of these have to be reasonably well attained, by working on some well-thought out exercises and have to be fully understood. She went on further to say that the geetham is a small kriti for the learner and taught the right method of playing the many charanams in the geetham, Sree Gananadha in Malahari to evoke the sahithya. "The key role of the meetu is important here," she stressed. "When you appreciate gamakas after becoming musically mature, you will know when it is being overdone and understand the limits to which swaras can be explored and rendered."

What is the order in which varnams have to be approached? The answer took her back to her teaching days. "The Principal of the Music College objected to my teaching the Kathanakuthoohala varnam for beginners. He wanted me to start with Sankarabharanam, Saveri and the like. I told him how these ragas required asaivus of great proportion to bring out the raga bhava and I had chosen Kathanakuthoohalam because it was built around plain and simple notes. Teaching methods for vocalists cannot be applied to the veena."

Kalpagam Swaminathan's first guru was her mother. Ananthakrishna Iyer and T.L. Venkatrama Iyer were her other formal gurus. Her song-base had more of Dikshitar kritis and less of Tyagaraja's, she admitted. Her two hour learning sessions were split into vocal for an hour and veena for the remaining hour, thus emphasising the effective use of "class-time."

Upa-gana ragams

While answering a question on Gana ragams she also reminded everyone about the Upa-gana ragams, giving examples of Ritigowla, Bowli, and Kedaram. She played the swara prayogas in the Hamsadhwani varnam {ndash} ni pa ga ri, ni ga ri ni, pa ni pa sa, ni ri sa ga {ndash} to show how these are intended as finger-exercises that have been quietly included in the composition. She also played 'Annapoorne' in Sama which was different from what is heard today. "I have learnt and am following the padhati of Dikshitar in its Aarohana. Have we lost something? How have these changes come about?" she posed these questions to those present.

What seemed to upset her was the way Dikshitar kritis are these days. "All Dikshitar kritis have the madhyama kala sahityam built into them which makes it all the more necessary that they should be played at the desired pace."

Playing a raga alapana in Kalyani she presented a thanam finishing with her own innovative prayogas. Are there any special exercises needed for playing the thanam? Certain characteristic thillana usages were played and recommended to improve thanam playing.

What was the take of two eminent performing veena artists on this session?

E. Gayathri observed that at the age of 87 this guru had those attendant infirmities of old age, but her personality changed once she touched the veena. "She does not waste time and her lessons in music are done without expecting any personal gain. The answers given had a totality in them clearing doubts that may spring up in one's mind later. Vidya Dhaanam, truly!

Jayalakshmi Sekhar was amazed that the vainika could play speed sangatis like a 25-year old. "Her clear-cut enunciations about learning and teaching methods have come at a time when so many different styles are being followed. The closing thanam phrases were unique and I have not heard thanam of this kind."

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